The 15 September meeting held in Santiago to address the ongoing Bolivian crisis revealed as much about the state of relations between Latin American countries as it did about the state of Bolivian politics.
First, was the role that Chile, and President Michelle Bachelet, as acting president of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), played. One would have thought that Santiago would be the last place that a Bolivian president would be willing to deal with an internal problem. But it is a sign of how much relations have improved under Evo Morales that such a meeting was even possible. It was also a sign of how concerned Santiago is. Only a few weeks ago a Chilean official scoffed when it was suggested that the country should prepare a contingency for a Bolivian civil war. Asked how Chile would deal with such an eventuality, and the prospect of thousands of refugees streaming over the border, the answer was, ‘It’s impossible’. It is unlikely that the Chileans still believe the idea is so far fetched. Chile has some interest, beyond President Bachelet’s current role as head of UNASUR, to encourage some sort of reduction in tensions.
Less inclined to reduce tensions was the president of Venezuela. As the meeting’s most mercurial, vociferous, and petro-dollar-propelled president, Hugo Chavez was hoping to use UNASUR was as a platform to bash the US for its supposed role in Bolivia. This was one of the main sticking points in the marathon, six-hour negotiation, but the most of the other delegates, and especially Chilean Foreign Minister Foxley, would have none of it. Well into the evening, President Bachelet announced the nine-point Moneda Declaration which offered “full and decided support to the constitutional government of President Evo Morales”, encouraged dialogue between the parties concerned, and created a commission to facilitate it, presided over by the acting president of UNASUR, President Bachelet. Only five years ago a Bolivian president was removed from office in part for suggesting that gas be exported through Chile.
Chavez was not done, though. Having returned to Caracas, he proceeded to expel the Chilean head of Human Rights Watch from the country. The Chilean reaction was angry but muted, trying to avoid taking further steps towards Chile-Venezuela war of attrition. In recent weeks, then, Chile and Bolivia, who have ongoing territorial issues, are cooperating to solve regional crises, while Chile and Venezuela, who have historically close ties, have an increasingly tense relationship. But what are the two countries actually arguing about?
In a word, leadership. Chile knows that with Brazil and Argentina in the neighbourhood it will never really be the region’s economic leader. But Chile does enjoy a kind of moral leadership and, especially under Socialist presidents Lagos and Bachelet, it has been able to present its model as one which is on the road towards a modern and successful social democracy, combining social justice with capitalism. It is the one example in the region that most undermines chavismo.
Finally, where was the United States? While the summit and the declaration were generally well received, critics, including the Chilean opposition, were not wrong in questioning the role – or lack thereof – of the Organization of the American States (OAS). Its secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, did attend, but clearly this was an UNASUR show. Apparently Bolivia and others did not wish to turn to the OAS as it counts the United States as a member. If that is the logic that Latin American countries will use from now on, the future of the OAS seems, at least, problematic. So does the United States’ future role in hemispheric relations.